First Published 22 April 2018
It was at the Anglican Monastery of the Holy Trinity, Crawley Down, that, as an eighteen year old, I first saw, and tried, the repeated use of deep bows and touching the ground with the fingers in prayer. At certain points in the Office and Mass and, in Lent, during the Prayer of St Ephrem. Later, at Tolleshunt Knights (the Orthodox community in Essex), I saw this prayer with full prostrations, falling to the knees, the forehead touching the ground.
I have written about prostrations before in relation to the Jesus Prayer, here.
“Do not neglect prostration. It provides an image of humanity’s fall into sin and expresses the confession of our sinfulness. Getting up, on the other hand, signifies repentance and the promise to lead a life of virtue. Let each prostration be accompanied by a noetic invocation of Christ, so that by falling before the Lord in soul and body you may gain the grace of the God of souls and bodies.”
Theoliptos, Metropolitan of Philadelphia
in The Philokalia, Volume, 4 p. 185 (Palmer, Sherrard and Ware, Faber 1995)
In a recent online article Rowan Williams writes:
“So: the regular ritual to begin the day when I’m in the house is a matter of an early rise and a brief walking meditation or sometimes a few slow prostrations, before squatting for 30 or 40 minutes (a low stool to support the thighs and reduce the weight on the lower legs) with the “Jesus Prayer”: repeating (usually silently) the words as I breathe out, leaving a moment between repetitions to notice the beating of the heart, which will slow down steadily over the period.”
Prostrations, like, fasting, like the daytime Hours, are ancient, and normal, practices of our Christian tradition. They root our prayer in our bodies. They help us move out of our heads into our whole physical being. Mirroring the descent of the consciousness, from the head to the heart, the centre of our being, we literally descend earthwards. These earth-touchings remind us, as we were reminded at the beginning of Lent, that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. They help us acknowledge, that, as dust, we are part of the whole creation, we cannot be the centre of the universe, because we are made of the same stuff as everything else that exists. They help us develop humility, showing us that we, too, are humus, of the earth.
Orthodox Christians pray the prayer of St Ephrem on all weekdays of Lent, with the accompanying bows and prostrations. I reproduce below two really helpful essays, one is an excerpt on the prayer from Alexander Schmemann’s Great Lent, and the other from Jim Forest’s excellent book on Confession. Before that some other comments and notes on the prayer. It is deceptively simple and well worth trying:
“Everyone should say this prayer daily during the week in Great Lent. Because of the physical way in which we say this prayer (it is done with bows and prostrations), it has the remarkable ability to put the soul in the right frame of mind. One might even go so far to say that if the Prayer of St Ephrem has been prayed with attention at least once during the day, and nothing else has been done, the Christian has prayed well.”
Here’s a note on how to do the prostrations:
“A Prostration is a full bow to the ground with the knees touching the ground, and the head touching or near the ground, then immediately standing back up. As the bow to the ground is begun, the sign of the cross is made. Some people touch their knees to the ground first and then bend their upper body down, and the more athletic or coordinated essentially “fall” forward to the ground with their knees and hands touching at essentially the same time. This is very similar to the familiar gym class “burpee”.
A Bow, is when the sign of the cross is made, while simultaneously bowing the head by bending at the waist. Some bow deeply and touch the ground with their right hand, and other make very shallow bows. It really does not matter as long as the movement is done with attention.”
This is the version of the prayer I use, from the prayerbooks of the New Skete communities:
And here is a note on the meaning of key terms:
The Greek word translated as “idle curiosity” is “periergia,” where the (modern) Slavonic has “unyniia,” which translates as “despondency,” and corresponds to the Greek “akedia,” one of the principle sins. “Faint-heartedness” is another possible translation. In today’s terms we might think of it as “depression.” This Slavonic reading (that is, despondency rather than curiosity) goes back to the earliest Pre-Nikonian texts, so seems to have been there from the beginning. Fr Ephrem Lash asks: “Does this go back to a different original, or is it a reflection of differing national temperaments?” I’m afraid I don’t have an answer. (Although it must be granted that Greeks are hopelessly lazy and curious, while Russians are famously gloomy.) The Romanian version, incidentally, follows the Greek
The Slavonic word translated as “chastity” is “tselomudria,” which could be more literally translated as “whole-mindedness.” This is in fact a literally translation of the Greek “sophrosune.” Perhaps this could be translated (from either Slavonic or Greek) as “integrity.” “Self-control,” I suppose, is another possible reading. But, in any case, there is no divergence between the Greek and Slavonic here.”
The Wikipedia article is helpful on variations in the text, here.
A Youtube demonstration of the prostrations can be found here.
The Lenten Prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian
By Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann. Source
Of all lenten hymns and prayers, one short prayer can be termed the lenten prayer. Tradition ascribes it to one of the great teachers of spiritual life – St. Ephrem the Syrian. Here is its text:
O Lord and Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother; For Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen
This prayer is read twice at the end of each lenten service Monday through Friday (not on Saturdays and Sundays for, as we shall see later, the services of these days do not follow the lenten pattern). At the first reading, a prostration follows each petition. Then we all bow twelve times saying: “O God, cleanse me a sinner.” The entire prayer is repeated with one final prostration at the end.
Why does this short and simple prayer occupy such an important position in the entire lenten worship? Because it enumerates in a unique way all the “negative” and “positive” elements of repentance and constitutes, so to speak, a “check list” for our individual lenten effort. This effort is aimed first at our liberation from some fundamental spiritual diseases which shape our life and make it virtually impossible for us even to start turning ourselves to God.
The basic disease is sloth. It is that strange laziness and passivity of our entire being which always pushes us “down” rather than “up” — which constantly convinces us that no change is possible and therefore desirable. It is in fact a deeply rooted cynicism which to every spiritual challenge responds “what for?” and makes our life one tremendous spiritual waste. It is the root of all sin because it poisons the spiritual energy at its very source.
The result of sloth is faint-heartedness. It is the state of despondency which all spiritual Fathers considered the greatest danger for the soul. Despondency is the impossibility for man to see anything good or positive; it is the reduction of everything to negativism and pessimism. It is truly a demonic power in us because the Devil is fundamentally a liar. He lies to man about God and about the world; he fills life with darkness and negation. Despondency is the suicide of the soul because when man is possessed by it he is absolutely unable to see the light and to desire it.
Lust of power! Strange as it may seem, it is precisely sloth and despondency that fill our life with lust of power. By vitiating the entire attitude toward life and making it meaningless and empty, they force us to seek compensation in, a radically wrong attitude toward other persons. If my life is not oriented toward God, not aimed at eternal values, it will inevitably become selfish and selfcentered and this means that all other beings will become means of my own self-satisfaction. If God is not the Lord and Master of my life, then I become my own lord and master — the absolute center of my own world, and I begin to evaluate everything in terms of my needs, my ideas, my desires, and my judgments. The lust of power is thus a fundamental depravity in my relationship to other beings, a search for their subordination to me. It is not necessarily expressed in the actual urge to command and to dominate “others.” It may result as well in indifference, contempt, lack of interest, consideration, and respect. It is indeed sloth and despondency directed this time at others; it completes spiritual suicide with spiritual murder.
Finally, idle talk. Of all created beings, man alone has been endowed with the gift of speech. All Fathers see in it the very “seal” of the Divine Image in man because God Himself is revealed as Word (John, 1:1). But being the supreme gift, it is by the same token the supreme danger. Being the very expression of man, the means of his self-fulfillment, it is for this very reason the means of his fall and self-destruction, of betrayal and sin. The word saves and the word kills; the word inspires and the word poisons. The word is the means of Truth and it is the means of demonic Lie. Having an ultimate positive power, it has therefore a tremendous negative power. It truly creates positively or negatively. When deviated from its divine origin and purpose, the word becomes idle. It “enforces” sloth, despondency, and lust of power, and transforms life into hell. It becomes the very power of sin.
These four are thus the negative “objects” of repentance. They are the obstacles to be removed. But God alone can remove them. Hence, the first part of the lenten prayer; this cry from the bottom of human helplessness. Then the prayer moves to the positive aims of repentance which also are four.
Chastity! If one does not reduce this term, as is so often and erroneously done, only to its sexual connotations, it is understood as the positive counterpart of sloth. The exact and full translation of the Greek sofrosini and the Russian tselomudryie ought to be whole-mindedness. Sloth is, first of all, dissipation, the brokenness of our vision and energy, the inability to see the whole. Its opposite then is precisely wholeness. If we usually mean by chastity the virtue opposed to sexual depravity, it is because the broken character of our existence is nowhere better manifested than in sexual lust — the alienation of the body from the life and control of the spirit. Christ restores wholeness in us and He does so by restoring in us the true scale of values by leading us back to God.
The first and wonderful fruit of this wholeness or chastity is humility. We already spoke of it. It is above everything else the victory of truth in us, the elimination of all lies in which we usually live. Humility alone is capable of truth, of seeing and accepting things as they are and therefore of seeing God’s majesty and goodness and love in everything. This is why we are told that God gives grace to the humble and resists the proud.
Chastity and humility are naturally followed by patience. The “natural” or “fallen” man is impatient, for being blind to himself he is quick to judge and to condemn others. Having but a broken, incomplete, and distorted knowledge of everything, he measures all things by his tastes and his ideas. Being indifferent to everyone except himself, he wants life to be successful right here and now. Patience, however, is truly a divine virtue. God is patient not because He is “indulgent,” but because He sees the depth of all that exists, because the inner reality of things, which in our blindness we do not see, is open to Him. The closer we come to God, the more patient we grow and the more we reflect that infinite respect for all beings which is the proper quality of God.
Finally, the crown and fruit of all virtues, of all growth and effort, is love — that love which, as we have already said, can be given by God alone-the gift which is the goal of all spiritual preparation and practice.
All this is summarized and brought together in the concluding petition of the lenten prayer in which we ask “to see my own errors and not to judge my brother.” For ultimately there is but one danger: pride. Pride is the source of evil, and all evil is pride. Yet it is not enough for me to see my own errors, for even this apparent virtue can be turned into pride. Spiritual writings are full of warnings against the subtle forms of pseudo-piety which, in reality, under the cover of humility and self-accusation can lead to a truly demonic pride. But when we “see our own errors” and “do not judge our brothers,” when, in other terms, chastity, humility, patience, and love are but one in us, then and only then the ultimate enemy–pride–will be destroyed in us.
After each petition of the prayer we make a prostration. Prostrations are not limited to the Prayer of St. Ephrem but constitute one of the distinctive characteristics of the entire lenten worship. Here, however, their meaning is disclosed best of all. In the long and difficult effort of spiritual recovery, the Church does not separate the soul from the body. The whole man has fallen away from God; the whole man is to be restored, the whole man is to return. The catastrophe of sin lies precisely in the victory of the flesh — the animal, the irrational, the lust in us — over the spiritual and the divine. But the body is glorious; the body is holy, so holy that God Himself “became flesh.” Salvation and repentance then are not contempt for the body or neglect of it, but restoration of the body to its real function as the expression and the life of spirit, as the temple of the priceless human soul. Christian asceticism is a fight, not against but for the body. For this reason, the whole man – soul and body – repents. The body participates in the prayer of the soul just as the soul prays through and in the body. Prostrations, the “psycho-somatic” sign of repentance and humility, of adoration and obedience, are thus the lenten rite par excellence.
Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness by Jim Forest (Orbis Books, 2002).
Reflect on the prayer phrase by phrase and let it question you.
“O Lord and Master of my life…”
Who is Lord and master of my life? Me? God? The ideas, slogans, and choices of people around me?
“…take from me the spirit of sloth…”
“The spirit of sloth” refers to laziness, indolence, indifference, or forgetfulness. In a commentary on the prayer, Fr. Alexander Schmemann regards sloth as the “basic disease…that strange laziness that always pushes us down rather than up — which constantly convinces us that no change is possible and therefore desirable. It is in fact a deeply rooted cynicism which to every spiritual challenge responds ‘what for?’ and makes our life one tremendous spiritual waste.” Sloth, says Olivier Clement in another commentary, is “a kind of sleepwalking, whether expressed in hyperactivity or in inertia.” How much of an effort do I make in daily life to try to think of Christ and try to follow him? To be aware of God’s presence in people and in nature? To actively seek the kingdom of God? To respond to God’s grace?
The word in question is sometimes translated from the Greek as despondency or faint-heartedness. It also suggests discouragement, being cowardly, an aversion to life – suicide of the soul. An important icon shows Saint George in combat with a dragon. The actual George, a martyr of the early Church, never saw a dragon but battled against those fears which, unresisted, make one submit to evil. Not to battle the dragons we meet in life is to submit to despair, to give way to faint-heartedness. Am I easily discouraged? Do I surrender within myself when frightened? Am I cowardly in living my faith? Do I arm myself for spiritual combat with a rule of prayer in my daily life?
“…lust for power…”
This is the spirit of self-importance, the religion of Me. The spirit of domination was the third temptation to which Jesus was subjected during his time of fasting in the wilderness. Christ dismissed Satan with the words, “The Lord your God shall you worship and him alone shall you serve” (Mt. 4:8-11). Lust for power makes an idol of the self. Do I seek to control or manipulate others? To be feared by others? Do I want to have the last word?
“…and idle talk.”
In a word, gossip. This is talk that attacks the social fabric much as termites attack the foundations of a wooden house. Idle talk refers to all chatter, not only mine but the empty chatter of others, including the chatter of television. The poet Carl Sandberg warns his daughter to be careful about what she says: “Words wear tall boots. They go marching off. You can’t stop them when they’re gone.” Christ cautions us that we will render an account “for every careless word” we speak (Mt 12:36). Have I lied or gossiped? Have I maligned or slandered others? Have I cursed anyone? Have I become addicted to noise because I cannot bear silence?
“But give to me, your servant, the spirit of chastity…”
The Greek word sophrosini, often translated as chastity, also means wholeness, self- control, sobriety, moderation, discretion, modesty, overcoming all passions that destroy life. To be chaste is to be pure in thought and conduct, to be free of addictions, to be in communion with God’s purity. It is the wholeness of an interior innocence, a virginal freshness of soul. Chastity exists in marriage when there is an integration of desire in a personal relationship marked by self-giving love. A chaste person, notes Clement, is no longer fragmented. “If we usually mean by chastity the virtue opposed to sexual depravity,” writes Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “it is because the broken character of our existence is nowhere better manifested than in sexual lust – the alienation of the body from the life and control of the spirit.” Do I realize my physical and spiritual life as one thing, not two? Have I used or regarded others as sexual objects? Have I damaged the spirit of chastity in myself by reading or looking at pornography? Have I dressed and behaved modestly?
Humility is poverty of spirit and meekness. Humility inspires an attitude of listening and of seeking out those who can give good counsel. Humility welcomes correction. A humble person is not proud or arrogant. Humility is not the denial of my value as a human being but rather seeing myself in relationship to God. Humility results from being in a state of gratitude rather than envy, resentment, or bitterness. Do I boast about myself? Do I respect others? Do I listen with attention and a readiness to learn? Do I resent good advice? Do I accept correction with gratitude? Or do I defend myself even when I am in the wrong?
Patience is calmly bearing or enduring delay, disappointment, pain, and sorrow. It is a deep confidence in God’s providence and the willingness to persevere even in the face of loss and failure. Clement speaks of patience as an “interiorized monasticism.” It is not resignation but the awareness that truly Christ is risen from the dead and is with us moment to moment, no matter where we go or what we are enduring. Do I imagine I am alone? That I am God-forsaken? Do I resent delays? Do I give up when there are too many obstacles? Do I tend to do things in a hurry? Am I easily annoyed with others? Do I get angry when I don’t get my way?
Love is the quality most needed. In speaking of God, while no word is adequate, none is truer than to say that God is love. “God so loved the world that He sent his only begotten Son,” writes Saint John (Jn 3:16). Love of its nature inspires whole-hearted giving, an eagerness to serve, care of words, humility, and patience. It is self-giving, even a death to self. We are taught by Christ not only to love our friends but also our enemies, for without love there is no way to overcome enmity, as he shows us with his own life. Much more than a sentiment, love is an attitude of caring for the well-being and salvation of others. Do I tend to put my needs and desires first? Do I pray for those I fear or hate? Does it disturb me to think that a person I do not like is also God’s child and bears the Divine Image? Do I look for ways to help others even if they are strangers?
“O Lord and King, grant to me to see my own faults and not to condemn my brother and sister. For you are blessed unto the ages of ages.”
Twice in this prayer God is addressed as Lord, once as Master, and once as King. This is Saint Ephraim’s way of helping us address our Creator in a spirit of respect and obedience. It may not be our desire to serve others or put their needs before our own, but if this is what God asks of us, we work to convert ourselves to living as God wishes. We especially ask God to make us aware of our own faults and sins rather than judge others. After all, at the Last Judgment I will be judged for my own sins, not the sins others committed, except to the extent that others sinned because I sinned. Do I care more about what is wrong with other people than what is wrong with myself? Do I look down on those who appear to have an even less ordered life than mine? Do I regard myself as not so bad because there are others who are worse?